Ole Miss football: Projecting the Rebels' 2021 starting lineup
With the majority of its recruiting work done during the Early Signing Period, Lane Kiffin and Ole Miss’ predominant focus has shifted toward spring football and the 2021 season.
Coming off a 5-5 campaign in Year 1, the Rebels return a lot of offensive talent and will look to piece together a stronger defense than the 2020 unit that ranked last in the SEC in most major statistical categories.
Let’s take a way too early look at Ole Miss’ 2021 starting lineup.
- QB: Matt Corral
- RB: Jerrion Ealy
- WR1: Braylon Sanders
- WR2: Dontario Drummond
- WR3: John Rhys Plumlee
- LT: Nick Broeker
- LG: Jalen Cunningham
- C: Ben Brown
- RG: Jeremy James
- RT: Eli Acker
- TE: Casey Kelly
The offense is fairly easy to forecast given that Ole Miss returns 4 of its 5 linemen and most of its skill talent — most notably QB Matt Corral.
All eyes will be on wide receiver and how the Rebels replace the production of Elijah Moore. Braylon Sanders (15 catches, 376 yards, 4 TDs) returning was a huge boost to a receiving corps with little experience. Dontario Drummond quietly put together a decent season with 25 grabs for 417 yards and 7 touchdowns in 10 games and will be called into a larger role next fall. Jonathan Mingo, who has shown flashes of being an above-average SEC receiver, will certainly see a lot of time and could potentially snag a starting spot.
The position to watch is in the slot. For the sake of making it fun, I picked John Rhys Plumlee to start. But that is far from a certainty. Can he embrace the move to slot receiver and use his electrifying speed to be an asset for the Rebels? Is he willing to do so or does he want to try his hand at quarterback elsewhere? J.J. Henry is an incoming freshman to keep an eye on and could make an immediate impact in the slot.
Ole Miss needs to figure out how it will replace Royce Newman on the offensive line. The most logical guess is that Eli Acker is ready to step in at right guard and all else remains the same. Reece McIntyre and Caleb Warren are options at either guard slot if the coaching staff feels they can slide either Cunningham or James outside.
Casey Kelly, Chad Kelly’s brother, was a revelation for the Rebels at tight end once Kenny Yeboah opted out of the final 2 games. He’s a big target with good hands and played well in an offense that targets the tight end often. Aside from a line tweak and finding a go-to receiver, Ole Miss is pretty much set on offense. That’s encouraging, considering the unit averaged 39.2 points per game in 2020.
- DE: Tariqious Tisdale
- DT: Jamond Gordon
- NT: Isaiah Iton
- Buck: Sam Williams
- Will: Jacquez Jones
- Mike: Lakia Henry
- Star: Otis Reese
- CB: Keidron Smith
- FS: A.J. Finley
- SS: Jaylon Jones
- CB: Deane Leonard
This is where it gets trickier to forecast. Ole Miss was putrid up front in 2020 and its inability to stop the run and rush the passer led to a number of other lingering issues as this group was repeatedly gashed to the tune of 40 points per game entering the bowl game. The Rebels get Sam Williams back, the team’s best pass rusher, as well as Tariqious Tisdale at defensive end. The interior defensive line is pretty much a guess at this point, but given how bad the returners were, it seems fairly obvious the Rebels are going to lean heavily on a pair of junior college newcomers in Iton and Gordon to make an immediate impact. If Ole Miss can find a contributor or two out of the group consisting of K.D. Hill, LeDarrius Cox and Quentin Bivens, they may be able to scrounge together some semblance of depth.
All three contributing linebackers return and the secondary has some enticing pieces as well as a couple of open slots. Reese, Finley and Smith will all presumably find starting jobs, leaving a corner and safety slot up for grabs, unless Reese or Finley move to corner. My bet is on Deane Leonard at the corner opposite of Smith and veteran Jaylon Jones at the safety slot. Ole Miss also welcomes eight newcomers in its 2021 class and a couple could make an impact immediately. The best bet to see the field immediately is Elijah Sabbatini.
Final thought …
Overall, Ole Miss should be an improved team in 2021 if it can find a go-to receiver and rectify its woeful defensive line. There are options to choose from as it pertains to the former, and it would be hard to be much worse when it comes to the latter. Those are the two main things to monitor this offseason as the Rebels enter year two of the Lane Kiffin era.